Grocers’ Customer Service Can Counter Online Threat


It’s hardly news that online is making an impact on in-store food shopping.

In a bid to compete with Amazon, Seamless, Peapod, FreshDirect and the other countless businesses that deliver food and individual meals to your home, supermarkets are seeking ways to get shoppers into their stores and buy.

The rise of the internet, mobile and ecommerce over the past two decades has chipped away at the market share of brick-and-mortar grocery stores. According to TechCrunch, 79 percent of U.S. consumers shop online, up from just 22 percent back in 2000. Some 217.1 million people in the United States are online shoppers, and that figure is projected to reach 224 million in 2019.

Shoppers have made it clear that they want to do more of their buying online and on their smartphones. So what can grocery store owners do? One tried-and-true business tactic – customer service – is becoming even more important in attracting buyers and keeping them as repeat shoppers

The “Amazon Effect,” the popularity and ease of online shopping, and the related changes in consumer behavior and preferences, are forcing store owners – from major franchisers to Main Street storefronts – to get serious about providing outstanding customer service. Stepping up customer service not only attract consumers into your store, but also keeps them coming back.

More business is lost due to poor service and poor treatment than poor product. Grocery stores spend thousands of marketing dollars trying to convince us to buy their products, but if that contact isn’t handled just right by customer service representatives at the point of sale, all of that money is wasted. Customers service failures not only affect sales and return business, but can also damage a brand and lead to online shaming on social media.

At Their Service

That being the case, what can store owners and managers do to up their customer service game?

  • Train your employees: Hire a professional trainer to come to your store and train your workers how to treat the customer right. Grocery stores like Stew Leonard’s and Wegmans do an excellent job training their workers. When you walk in those stores, you’re struck by how friendly and helpful the employees are. It’s obvious. You can’t miss it. And it makes a positive impression.
  • Smile: Grocery stores need to make smiling a condition of employment and grounds for termination. It’s that simple: From the first employee at the front door to the cashier at the checkout counter, smiling and happiness make an impression and help win repeat shoppers.
  • Customer engagement: While shopping at a Trader Joe or a Whole Food Market, even though they’re a bit pricier, you don’t mind paying a little extra because the employees are so helpful. If you’re looking for an item, they not only tell you what aisle you’ll find it in, but they’ll often also walk you to the exact location. Everyone is willing to assist, from the stockpeople to the butchers to the cashiers. They’ve been trained, and it’s evident.
  • Along with providing help when needed, associates should always say thank you, show customers respect, listen to their questions and be responsive. All make a positive impression and will help lead to repeat business.
  • Have knowledgeable store employees: Store managers and employees must keep up to date with all products in the store, from produce to meat to canned goods to new products. Answering shopper questions on the spot without seeking help is another way that stores can show off their customer service chops.
  • Offer carry-out service: Yes, it’s an added cost to have employees carry out groceries to the parking lot, but it’s worth it. While grocery carry-out is a rare amenity, it’s a huge win for the customer and shows that your store goes the extra mile to make a good impression and encourage repeat business.

Helpful Tech

While person-to-person contact is vital, technology can help make the customer experience better, and improve human customer service as well. It’s become a big part of the customer service experience.

As mentioned in a recent Progressive Grocer article, Walmart has added a handful of new and improved features to its mobile app not only to help customers get in and out quickly, but also to assist them before they even leave the house. According to the article, Walmart has been adding various new features to its mobile app to give customers a more convenient experience shopping both in-store and online.

Virtual reality (VR) technology will also play an increasing role in the customer service experience. VR allows supermarket associates to experience a lifelike store environment to experiment, learn and handle difficult situations without the need to recreate disruptive incidents or disturb the customers’ shopping experience.

Perhaps the most exciting high-tech development is the checkout-free shopping experience. Amazon’s “just walk out” technology automatically detects when products are taken from or returned to shelves and keeps track in a virtual cart. Once you’re done shopping, you simply leave the store and shortly after, your account is charged and you’re sent a receipt through the free, downloadable app.

Now more than ever, smart grocery owners and managers must invest in customer service training programs. As the internet continues to cut into sales, grocers need to enlist experienced customer service professionals to teach their employees how to navigate every possible issue and complaint. Sadly, apathy is a major roadblock among business owners who compete daily against online shopping businesses. They are so busy trying to survive that they overlook the importance of customer service as a way to counter the online threat.

From the employees stocking shelves, to people behind the deli counter, to cashiers and customer service staff, owners and managers need to train their employees how to deal with the consumer if they are to compete against the technology threat.

There will always be a place and need for grocery stores. People like perusing aisles, seeing the products on the shelves and running into friends while shopping. But the rise of ecommerce and mobile shopping not only moves individual sales online, but also builds new shopping habits, so that consumers gradually see the living room couch as a good-enough replacement for their local store.

The best way to counter the threat is to provide excellent customer service by training your employees and giving the consumer a reason to turn off technology and shop, buy and return to your store.

About the Author

Nancy Friedman is a customer service expert and the president of The Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training Inc., in St. Louis, Mo. Read More